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What You Need for the Long Haul

How to cultivate the essential quality of perseverance

Li #242 What You Need for the Long Haul
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IN 1952 A young woman named Florence Chadwick waded into the cold Pacific. She hoped to set a new speed record for swimming the 26 miles from Santa Catalina Island to the California coast.

Florence had the credentials. She had already swum the English Channel in both directions, the first woman to do so.


It was a cold foggy morning, and the going was rough. The water was choppy, and the fog never lifted. Hour after hour she swam. There were times she couldn’t even see the boats that accompanied her. She could only hear the voices of the people, along with occasional rifle shots, as they tried to discourage curious sharks from getting too close.


Muscles aching, exhausted, and discouraged, Florence told her companions she wanted to quit, that she couldn’t do it. “No, no, don’t give up. You can do it,” they coached her, but it was too hard. Giving in to despair, Florence reached out and grasped the boat, officially ending her record attempt.


Within minutes, she learned that she had stopped one half mile from the shore.


Why people quit


In an interview following her failure, Florence commented, “I’m not excusing myself, but if I could have seen the land, I might have made it.”


In other words, it wasn’t cold, fear, exhaustion, or the sharks that caused her to quit. It was the fog. The inability to see her goal meant she lacked any sense of making progress. She lost hope, and without hope, people quit.


Failure wasn’t final for Florence. Two months later, she walked off the same Santa Catalina beach and succeeded. She swam the distance and set a new speed record.


The underrated virtue


Perseverance is an underrated virtue. We learn about it as children through stories like “The Little Engine That Could.” Trying to pull a heavy train up a steep mountain, he kept chugging, telling himself: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …” And he did. There’s the familiar fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” While the hare could run circles around the tortoise, the hare was undisciplined and unfocused. By faithfully plodding down the road, the tortoise won the race in the end.


Cynicism saps spirits, being usually the result of hurtful disappointments and loss of hope. It’s understandable, given some people’s life experiences, but it’s a trap. Cynicism is a soul-sapping, motivation-quenching frame of mind. Hope the belief that the future can and will be better ─ is essential.


Winston Churchill said,


“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”


We will all experience disappointments and setbacks. What resources can we rely on to keep going when we can’t see through the “dense fog”? Here are some suggestions.


Resources to persevere


1.     Identify  your Prime Motivator


Everybody has one. Whether conscious or unconscious, we all have an inner drive motivating us wherever we go, whatever we do. We Sherpa Coaches call it “Why It Matters”: the drive behind your actions.


I like to describe it as your “Prime Motivator.” For some, it’s “To serve others.” For others, it’s “To build things that last.” It can be “To create something new.” We all organize, build, lead, create, and serve from our prime motivator. It’s the difference between a man who defines his job as “cutting limestone” and another doing the same function who sees himself as “building a cathedral.”


Our Prime Motivator is developed very early in life. Looking back decades later, we can connect what we find fulfillment in doing today with what we were drawn to do at ages 8, 18, 28, and so on. Why do you do what you do?


When you can connect your life and work to your deepest motivation, you have an energy source that can help you persevere for the long haul. It is well worth the time of introspection.


2.     Cultivate your support system


Everybody needs one. We are human beings, not machines. We all need rest, refreshment, and recreation. We need fuel, friends, and fun. I often find myself saying to coaching clients, “It is not selfish to see to your own well-being. It is a necessity.”


I work with some people who seem to be non-stop serving machines. I tell them, “Even machines need maintenance. You want to serve others? Great! That’s admirable. But how much good will you do for others if you break down in the process?”


There is a Sherpa Coaching process to analyze the quality of your support system. We break it into three zones:


  • Internal — What do you do for yourself that reenergizes you? Examples: reading, hobbies, exercising, music


  • External — Who do you go to for things like these? Friendship, encouragement, advice, counsel, accountability

  • Environmental — Where do you go for peace, rest, and refuge? Examples: den, golf course, bookstore, park


Would you expect a marathon runner to win who fasted the week before a race? Would you expect a mountain climber to succeed (or survive!) who forgot to take food and water for the climb? Of course not.


We all need practices, people, and places in our lives to function at our best for the long term. High performers know what maintains them and make sure they work those influences into their schedule.


3.  Mark progress


Like Florence Chapman on that foggy morning, we sometimes are in a season where the finish line is invisible, and we have no sense of progress. Discouragement deepens.


Seeing that we are making progress is one of the greatest motivators, but people and teams often fail to stop and notice. Why? They’re too preoccupied with speed and busyness.


For this reason, the best leaders regularly recognize progress, “how we’re moving the ball down the field.” People are encouraged to keep on working by stopping to note steps made toward objectives. The same applies to us in our individual roles.


4.   “Make haste slowly”


Caesar Augustus was the chief architect of the Roman Empire. Taking command of a Republic in ruins after decades of civil wars, he had a grand vision of what the Empire could be. History displays the results of his visionary genius. In Latin, the motto he worked by was festina lente. It means, “Make haste slowly”; that is, providing continuous consistent pressure toward the vision.


Teams that accomplish great things seldom get there by giant leaps. It’s usually the relentless drive to push forward step by step, always seeking to do a little better today than yesterday. Festina lente.


A wise modern saying goes, “People tend to overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in five years.” A longer-term perspective plus perseverance is wiser and more effective.


5.   Have a baseball, not a football, mindset


Football is a crazy game that requires an altered state of mind. You’d be crazy to walk onto a gridiron otherwise. Players work themselves up to a fever pitch, scream in the mirror, hit each other on the pads, and chant. But they play only once a week for 17 games.


Baseball players play 162 games over six months with few days off. A hitter can expect to bat 500-600 times. Can you imagine what would happen if they tried to play in a football state of mind? They wouldn’t last two weeks before burning out. That’s why ballplayers seem so relaxed and loose most of the time. They know it’s a LONG season.


Life and work are that way, too. Yes, there are “urgent” times when we must work at top speed. But life — personal and professional — is more like a baseball than a football season. We need a long-term mentality that isn’t looking for everything to happen this week and certainly doesn’t manufacture unnecessary urgencies. Continuous intensity, especially non-essential intensity, burns people out emotionally.


Consistent effort over time equals solid achievement. To persevere, however, requires self-awareness, a long-term perspective, and deliberate self-maintenance. Li


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